John Buell

Rethinking Labor's History and Future

As the AFL-CIO prepares for its quadrennial convention, its leadership is bitterly divided. Some fear that the federation may soon break up. Union membership peaked at about a quarter of the workforce in 1953, but following precipitous declines in the '80s and '90s, unions now represent only 13% of US workers.

Ten years ago, this crisis led the AFL-CIO to change leadership by electing John Sweeney to head the federation. Sweeney emphasized organizing the unorganized, especially recruiting predominantly minority and women service sector workers. His efforts have borne some modest successes, but in the aggregate they have failed to staunch the tide. Once again labor leaders are debating new approaches to organizing.

Service Employee International Union President Andy Stern has proposed the consolidation of existing unions to avoid jurisdictional warfare and giving member unions more incentives to organize. Yet the continuing crisis of labor, even in the wake of Sweeney's decade-long efforts, invites a more radical question: What are unions for? Business leaders and union leaders have different takes on this question, but the traditional responses from each side may need reexamination.

Many business leaders and their right-wing allies regard unions as obsolete, a relic of an outdated class war. Workers, however, experience many injustices in their day-to-day work. Why unions have been unable to tap these grievances is a subject that goes far beyond organization tactics.

The perspective that many union leaders have on unions may be as self-deluding as the right's confidence that unions are obsolete. They argue that unions are dying solely because corporate employers and right-wing governments have decided they no longer need unions and have been willing to take any steps necessary, legal or not, to destroy unions.

This leadership perspective surely has elements of truth, but as labor organizer and scholar Peter Kellman points out in Divided We Fall [The Apex Press], unions have often confronted concerted corporate and government opposition and yet on occasion have achieved spectacular successes.

They have been far more successful when they deeply valued and expressed working class solidarity. Nor is such solidarity always a long bygone dream. Kellman reminds us that at the same time (late 1980s) that workers at International Paper (IP) were losing the bitterest strike in Maine history, workers at West Virginia's Pittston Coal company took on the corporation and won.

These United Mine Worker (UMW) members were heirs of a union tradition going back to John L. Lewis, the legendary president of the UMW in the thirties and a founder of the militant Congress of Industrial Organization. Like Lewis, they relied on sit-down strikes to rally community support. In addition, the union leadership, elected directly by its members, involved workers all over the country in the strike.

In the Maine IP strike, however, the national union leadership was unwilling to encourage sympathy strikes at other IP facilities or a boycott of IP products for fear of alienating a company with whom it still had contracts at other locations. Yet, as Kellman points out, that is like letting a shark bite off your arm in the hopes that it won't take the rest of you later.

Ever since the New Deal, labor has relied on the kindness of strangers to achieve its mission. It counts on government to hold free and fair union representation elections, but these elections are loaded against workers from the start. Even when corporations obey the letter of the law, they are free to advance the company message on company time. Workers are obligated to attend. Worse still, labor law makes the hiring of so called replacement workers entirely legal. The clear implication is that the right to strike is at best a legal nicety. It is no more than the right to quit one's job.

Government has played a major role in kicking labor in the teeth. The 1947 Taft-Hartley Law allows states to ban union shops, an option that many Southern states have adopted. Taft Hartley also outlaws sympathy strikes, even though US corporations enjoy the right to use other branch plants to produce goods in striking plants, thereby whipsawing workers. Taft Hartley removes control of union pension funds from unions, thereby depriving them of another right that corporations enjoy, the right to deploy their capital to advance their own economic and political ends.

Kellman reminds us that US corporations enjoy rights of personhood denied to workers in the workplace. They benefit from limited liability under which investors in them can lose no more than the value of their initial investment, no matter how socially and ecologically destructive their acts. Workers have only the right to quit.

To Kellman's point I would add that the right to quit itself amounts to very little because our economy has almost always operated far short of full employment. Our Federal Reserve has always worried more about tight labor markets and wage growth than about unemployment. Thus, most workers have few job choices that guarantee basic rights of due process or even minimal free speech.

Labor needs a reinvigorated democratic ideal. Kellman recognizes that the most enduring forms of worker solidarity are not imposed but are rather the product of democratic debate among workers themselves. Debate is necessary both to energize workers and to expose the limits to prevailing policies and agendas. Unions can fall prey not merely to self-defeating forms of collaboration with authoritarian managements, but also to internal discrimination based on race, gender and sexual orientation. Unions can build community support most effectively when they are democratic and nondiscriminatory, and when they articulate demands that speak to and advance broad community needs.

A democratic labor movement does not mean government management of the workplace. Rather, it is an assertion by workers of their right to free expression and a voice in day-to-day union and corporate affairs. There is ample evidence both that workers still want this and also that businesses can be at least as productive when they treat workers fairly. Toward this end, the kind of civil disobedience that characterized the civil rights movement -- including boycotts and sympathy strikes -- remains both right and appropriate.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email

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